Interfering for Good in Human Matters
“Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
– Jacob Marley
My grandfather, Casimir E. Walters, was born in 1899. Or 1900, we’re not totally sure. There seems to be evidence that he was born in 1900, but claimed 1899 in order to be old enough to join the Navy when America entered World War I. When he returned home to Wisconsin from the war, he worked as a lumberjack, where he lost several fingers to the blades of the sawmill. Eventually, a truckload of tree trunks crushed his leg, leaving him with a permanent limp and in need of a new line of work. In his mid-30s, he married my grandmother and settled down in Merrill, WI, where my father was born in 1936. A few years later, hearing news of employment opportunities in the factories of Racine, he packed up the family and moved, eventually getting a job in the power plant of tractor manufacturer J. I. Case Company where he worked the swing shift.
For those of you who aren’t well-acquainted with factory lingo, the swing shift meant that every two weeks he worked a different 8-hour shift. First, he’d spend two weeks working from 7:00am to 3:00pm; then he’d spend another two weeks working 3:00pm until 11:00pm; and then another two weeks working the graveyard shift, 11:00pm until 7:00am. It was brutal.
My grandfather worked the swing shift for twenty years.
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, maintaining such a schedule has severe negative health effects which include cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders such as peptic ulcers, and depression. My grandfather had at least two of those — I was too young to know about depression. By the time he was in his early sixties, he had developed cardiovascular disease. His doctor prescribed nitroglycerin tablets for him to take when he would have chest pains, which was quite frequently. However, these pills had side effects that made it problematic for him to take when he was on the job. His doctor recommended that he get off the swing shift, and preferably retire entirely. Nevertheless, my grandfather tried to continue working and managed to make it until he had put in the 20 years necessary to be eligible for a much-needed pension. This was in the early 1960s, several years before Medicare, and for someone with serious health conditions like he had, a pension was very important.
But he didn’t get one.
While he thought he had the requisite years on the job to be eligible, he was informed by HR that it was the policy of Case to subtract from his tenure the amount of time his union had been on strike, which put him below the minimum. By then, he was too ill to continue working to make up for that amount of time.
Enter My Father
At the time this was going on, my father, Robert Walters, was then a 25-year old with two young children who had been working a short time in the office at the same J. I. Case factory where my grandfather worked. When he heard about where things stood with my grandfather, he told him he would talk to people and see if he could get some sort of exception, given my grandfather’s long and loyal career. He began poking around asking questions, and it wasn’t too long before his boss pulled him aside and quietly informed him that word was getting around about my father’s inquiries, and it might be a good idea for him to stop pursuing the matter for fear of being labeled a troublemaker and possibly losing his job. Fearing for his livelihood, my father gave up, and my grandfather, lacking any alternative, retired without a pension. My grandmother went to work as a secretary to help make ends meet. Nine years later, my grandfather died of a bleeding ulcer, another health effect of working the swing shift – he was 71.
The reason I know about the story of my grandfather’s pension is that, about fifty years after my grandfather’s retirement, I gave my now-retired father a book for Christmas that would provide prompts for him to write his autobiography. He decided that, instead of writing, he would work his way through the book and record his responses on a cassette. I remember listening to him choke up as he told this story – fifty years of guilt and regret coming through the recording as he remembered is inability to help his father in his time of need. When he finished the story, I heard the click of the recorder as he turned it off. He couldn’t continue.
Bill Cosby and Jerry Angelo
I found myself thinking of my father’s pain when I read the New York Daily News story about former NBC employee Frank Scotti, who worked as facilities manager at the Brooklyn studio where The Cosby Show was originally taped before a live audience. Scotti, now 90 years old, discussed his role in bringing young models to Bill Cosby’s dressing room.
He would just tell me to keep the women in there. Don’t let anybody in. And it was very obvious what was going on, to me anyway… When the models used to come he would say, “get rid of everybody and leave that one there…” Then he’d tell me, “Stand outside the door and don’t let anyone in.” Now you put that together and figure (out) why.
He concluded, “I was keeping a woman for him. That’s what pimps do, I guess.” Scotti also claimed to have helped Cosby pay off women with whom he was having sex, using Cosby’s money to buy money orders for them. Scotti said the sordid arrangements gnawed at him, and he decided to come forward now because he “felt sorry for the women” who have recently been making public allegations. Scotti, like my father, was another aged man carrying with him deep regrets about his inactions.
The same day the Scotti article ran, another New York Daily News article, this time in the “[email protected] column, touched on Cosby’s more recent backstage behavior, describing how the female staffers at The Late Show With David Letterman were relieved to hear that Cosby’s appearance on the show had been cancelled. The reason, according to an anonymous female staffer quoted in the article, is that Cosby would “include as a request, before he arrived, that the young girls, interns and assistants, all had to gather around in the green room backstage and sit down and watch him eat curry.” She went on: “No one would say anything, and he would sit silently eating and make us watch and want us to watch.” The source noted that the women hated doing this, but they were asked by the producers to do it because “that’s what he (Cosby) wanted.”
Meanwhile, in an October 9th article published in USA Today in the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence controversy, former NFL executive Jerry Angelo admitted that teams did not discipline players in “hundreds and hundreds” of cases of domestic violence during his thirty years in the league. According to reporter Josh Peter,
Angelo said he did not report to the league cases of domestic violence involving players because disciplinary action would have put his team at a competitive disadvantage. ‘Our business is to win games,’ Angelo said. ‘We’ve got to win games, and the commissioner’s job is to make sure the credibility of the National Football League is held in the highest esteem.’
The article said Angelo’s “typical approach after learning of a player’s involvement in a domestic violence case was to inquire, “OK, is everybody OK? Yeah. How are they doing? Good. And then we’d just move on. We’d move on.” The release of the video showing Rice punching his then-fiancée shocked the country and brought Angelo remorse. “We knew it was wrong,” Angelo said. “…For whatever reason, it just kind of got glossed over. I’m no psychiatrist, so I can’t really get into what that part of it is. I’m just telling you how I was. I’ve got to look at myself first. And I was part of that, but I didn’t stand alone.”
The Chicago Bears denied any knowledge of what Angelo was referring to, and afterwards Angelo said his comments had been taken out of context.
The Necessity of Little People
My point in mentioning all of these stories is not to condemn J. I. Case Company (although as a small farmer myself, I will never, ever allow a Case tractor on my farm), nor Bill Cosby, nor Ray Rice and the NFL – as much as they deserve our condemnation. Rather, I want to talk about all the “little people” who make it possible for people like these to get away with their abuses.
There are many bad people with power in the world, but usually not enough power for them to do their deeds alone; in order for them to do what they do, it requires the tacit support of others who make it possible. It requires people like my father, who are understandably concerned about their jobs and so remain quiet. It requires the staff in Human Resources at Case, who probably knew my grandfather and who processed his paperwork while knowing the effect it would have on him. It requires people like my father’s boss who subtly threatened my father with firing unless he got in line. It requires people like Jerry Angelo, who worked their way up in an organization and who put profit and image ahead of doing what is right, but it also requires those myriad NFL staffers who kept their head down and didn’t mention what was happening. It requires people like Frank Scotti, who turned a blind eye to what he knew was wrong. It requires people like the Letterman producers, who put up with sick requests because a powerful person “wanted it.” It even requires people like the young women and interns who object to their treatment but do it nonetheless because they want to (in the har-de-har-har words of the Daily News folks who made this part of the URL for their Letterman article) “curry favor.”
It’s a system, one we “little people” support daily with our silence, our compliance and our closed eyes. While Bill Cosby is currently in the spotlight, we have seen his sort of behavior, and worse, wherever there is power and money. It is highlighted in the moral cesspool that seems to have been the John F. Kennedy administration, the corruption in companies like Enron, the ethical vacuum that is Monsanto and the banking industry, and everything that has to do with Hollywood. Americans like to think that the cream rises to the top in our society, but so does scum.
What Are You Going to Do About It?
The past two months, I have written articles about diversity in the theater, and the class bias in theater education that undermines most attempts at increasing diversity. In both of these articles, I have talked about the system that torpedoes the attempts of individuals to enact change. That’s true enough. But it is equally true that those systems are supported by our unwillingness to acknowledge them, to confront them, to condemn them, to withdraw our support from them. They are supported by our individual cowardice in the face of authority, and our cynical willingness to simply say “well, that’s just the way it is,” without acknowledging that just saying that allows the way it is to continue being the way it is.
In the early stages of the movement for an independent India, Mahatma Gandhi led the Non-Cooperation Movement, in which Indians refused to buy British goods or uphold the values of the British Empire. It was amazingly effective. Rambriksh Benipuri, the eminent Hindi writer who participated in Gandhi’s movement, wrote:
I can assert that no other movement upturned the foundations of Indian society to the extent that the Non-Cooperation movement did. From the most humble huts to the high places, from villages to cities, everywhere there was a ferment, a loud echo.
They upended the system by refusing to cooperate with it. We are not powerless to cause change as long as we are willing to take risks necessary to save our souls.
I started out this essay with a quotation from A Christmas Carol, Dickens’ passionate condemnation of the greed and moral blindness of 19th-century England that has somehow been transformed into a warm and fuzzy celebration of Christmas togetherness. But Jacob Marley’s visit ought to be terrifying to us all, as he drags throughout eternity “the chain I forged in life! I made it link by link and yard by yard! I gartered it on of my own free will and by my own free will, I wore it!” I find myself thinking of my father, dragging his sense of guilt and shame with him for fifty years; of 90-year-old Frank Scotti, still haunted by what his inaction meant to women, some as young as 16, who found themselves locked in a room with Cosby; of Jerry Angelo, still so afraid of his NFL compatriots that he denies his own words even as he attempts to confess his guilt; of all the “little people” who have no idea the chains they have forged through their own inaction.
At the end of his visit, Marley warns Ebenezer Scrooge to not wait until it is too late to change his ways and escape his fate, and as he throws open the window to rejoin the spirits, Scrooge sees:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power forever.